from the the-man-in-the-middle-is-a-bit-of-a-jerk dept
Everybody wants a piece of the Internet advertising pie, and many are willing to sink to the very bottom of the well of stupidity to get what they believe is owed them. For years now ISPs, hardware vendors and even hotels simply haven’t been able to help themselves, and have repeatedly been caught trying to inject their own ads over the top of user browsers and data streams. This is a terrible idea for a number of reasons, ranging from the fact that ad injection is effectively an attack on user traffic, to the obvious and inherent problem with defacing other people and organizations’ websites and content with your own advertising prattle.
Still, companies like Comcast, Marriot and Samsung have all been caught trying to shove their ads over the top of user data streams. When pressed, most companies are utterly oblivious (or pretend to be utterly oblivious) as to why this behavior might not be that good of an idea.
AT&T appears to be the latest company to use its perceived power over the conduit to manipulate the message. Stanford computer science and legal lecturer Jonathan Mayer recently visited the Dulles airport in DC, and found AT&T’s Wi-Fi hotspots pushing a number of pop up ads, overlaying themselves on browser content:
As already noted, this type of injection is highly problematic and sets an awful precedent:
“AT&T has an (understandable) incentive to seek consumer-side income from its free wifi service, but this model of advertising injection is particularly unsavory. Among other drawbacks: It exposes much of the user?s browsing activity to an undisclosed and untrusted business. It clutters the user?s web browsing experience. It tarnishes carefully crafted online brands and content, especially because the ads are not clearly marked as part of the hotspot service. And it introduces security and breakage risks, since website developers generally don?t plan for extra scripts and layout elements.”
As Mayer also notes, this is a legally muddy area, and, worried about regulatory wrist slaps, most busted ISPs have very quickly and sheepishly backed away from the practice for fear of legal repercussions. I reached out to AT&T to see whether this is a one-off instance of stupidity on the part of AT&T or somebody else (like Dulles), or if aggressively and idiotically injecting itself into the user browsing experience is now going to be AT&T’s standard operating procedure across the company’s network of 30,000+ Wi-Fi hotspots.
Update: AT&T has sent us a statement indicating that this was part of a limited trial:
“Our industry is constantly looking to strike a balance between the experience and economics of free Wi-Fi. We trialed an advertising program for a limited time in two airports (Dulles and Reagan National) and the trial has ended. The trial was part of an ongoing effort to explore alternate ways to deliver a free Wi-Fi service that is safe, secure and fast.”